Before writing about the Fourth International in this series of articles about attempts to build a worldwide Marxist international, I decided to take up the “centrist” internationals nicknamed two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half respectively, mostly out of derision by their adversaries. The first is formally known as the International Working Union of Socialist Parties and existed in the 1920s, largely as a collection of leftwing socialist parties sympathetic to Austro-Marxism. Since it was launched by Austrians such as Friedrich Adler and Otto Bauer, it was only natural for it to be based in Vienna and was also referred to as the Vienna International. The second, known as the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre, was arguably to the left and included Spain’s POUM as its best known member party. Since the headquarters was based in London, it was referred to as the “London Bureau”. The British section was called the Independent Labor Party (it had also been attached to the Vienna International) and included George Orwell as a sympathizer. His “Homage to Catalonia” describes his involvement with the POUM in Spain.
Not long after I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I learned that there was such a thing called “centrism”, a political current that supposedly was revolutionary in words, but counter-revolutionary in action. From what I can ascertain, this is drawn from Lenin’s characterization of Kautsky’s ideas in chapter six of “State and Revolution”: “This is nothing but the purest and most vulgar opportunism: repudiating revolution in deeds, while accepting it in words.” Since Kautsky was considered a kind of arch-demon in our movement, it was easy to understand why centrism became a curse word. The only problem is that pretty much everybody outside of our ranks, except for the Stalinists and the social democrats, could be referred to as a centrist if they did not go along with the entire Trotskyist catechism. This included just about every guerrilla group in Latin America, and implicitly Fidel Castro until he received absolution after 1963 or so.
Another definition of centrism can be found in Trotsky’s writings and complemented Lenin’s definition above. Trotsky characterized centrism as a current that oscillated between revolutionary and reformist politics. In addition to groups like the POUM, he felt that the definition applied to the Comintern since it was committed to socialism in one country.
It is very difficult to find documents from the “half” internationals either on or off the Internet, and I say that as someone with access to one of the best research libraries in the U.S. but you will find plenty of stuff directed against them.
Fresh from screwing up in Germany in 1921, Karl Radek uses the kind of vituperative language against the Vienna International in a 1922 article titled Foundation of the Two and a Half International that would be used against anybody who got on the wrong side of the Comintern leaders, including Trotsky:
The consideration that the Centrist spirit must be vanquished under the conditions of the world revolution, and by means of it, does not mean at all that the Communist International must offer peace to this spirit in its midst, in order that in may be ultimately overmastered by the revolution. Naturally, the infected organs into which the Centrist venom has had time to penetrate unnoticed must be removed, so that they shall not infect the whole body.
While very little of the Vienna International statements can be found on the Internet, there is one item worth reading, the Official Report of a joint meeting of the Second, Third and Second and a Half Internationals in Berlin on April 2, 1922. As opposed to Karl Radek, whose article revolved around the failure of the centrists to support the dictatorship of the proletariat and other key elements of Communist doctrine, Friedrich Adler was far more interested in figuring out ways the working class movement could unite in action:
I think that all of us here feel that common action on the part of the proletariat has never been more urgent than at the present time. However powerful the differences between us may be, however much we may feel those differences day by day and be compelled day by day to oppose comrades of one section or another, still we know that above all these differences, and stronger than any petty differences, the incredible distress of the world proletariat which is the outcome of the world war—the terrible conditions of misery caused by depreciation of currency and economic need on the one hand, and increased unemployment in the lands with a high currency on the other hand—this urgent need of the world proletariat has produced among them, side by side with their interest in theoretical questions, an imperative desire for unity of action in the immediate tasks of the day.
While I have no interest in trying to salvage the reputation of the Vienna International, I can only say that Radek’s business about “infected organs” compares most unfavorably with Adler’s measured remarks that were far more in the spirit of the United Front policy that had become official Comintern policy. If the problem of centrism was a disjunction between words and deeds, one can only say that Radek’s over-the-top rant was unlikely to lead to the sort of working class unity so desperately needed in those days.
After Trotsky launched the Fourth International, he was confronted by the centrist Three-and-a-half International just as Lenin had to contend with the Two-and-a-half a few years later. Launched in 1931, the London Bureau was not so easy to pigeonhole since it had many genuine revolutionaries like Daniel Guerin and Andres Nin.
Trotsky had a knack for drawing hard-and-fast distinctions between his own movement and such centrists, even when they showed sympathy for his ideas. In a letter to the Independent Labour Party, Trotsky thanked them for printing one of his articles but chastised them for a formulation in the forward:
To the Comrades of the Independent Labour Party. – You have published my Copenhagen speech on the Russian Revolution in pamphlet form. I can of course, only be glad that you made my speech accessible to British workers. The foreword by James Maxton recommends this booklet warmly to the Socialist readers. I can only be thankful for this recommendation.
The foreword, however, contains an idea to which I feel obliged to take exception. Maxton refuses in advance to enter into the merits of those disagreements which separate me and my co-thinkers from the now ruling fraction in the USSR. “This is a matter,” he says, “on which only Russian socialists are competent to decide.”
By these few words the international character of socialism as a scientific doctrine and as a revolutionary movement is completely refuted. If socialists (communists) of one country are incapable. incompetent, and consequently have no right to decide the vital questions of the struggle of socialists (communists) in other countries, the proletarian International loses all rights and possibilities of existence.
Now I would never want to try to second-guess somebody as brilliant as Trotsky—except for this one time—but perhaps it was not the best move to make an issue out of what Maxton wrote in the forward. This sort of thing has a way of antagonizing people especially given the costs of publishing a pamphlet in the depths of the Great Depression.
Trotsky did understand that the ILP was much bigger than his own group in Britain and was blessed with its own prestigious magazine called The New Leader, which continues to be published with about the same analysis it had in Trotsky’s day. The Trotskyist section in Britain was called the Bolshevik-Leninists, just the sort of name that I would have advised against but what do I know.
Trotsky tried to proffer advice to his followers about how to approach the ILP, a group that they had little use for and which Trotsky was trying to orient them to in an “entryist” fashion:
Whether you will enter the ILP as a faction or as individuals is a purely formal question. In essence, you will, of course, be a faction that submits to common discipline. Before entering the ILP you make a public declaration: “Our views are known. We base ourselves on the principles of Bolshevism-Leninism and have formed ourselves as a part of the International Left Opposition. Its ideas we consider as the only basis on which the new International can be built. We are entering the ILP to convince the members of that party in daily practical work of the correctness of our ideas and of the necessity of the ILP joining the initiators of the new International.”
In what sense could such a declaration lower the prestige of your group? This is not clear to me.
I don’t know about prestige but the claim that its “ideas” are the only basis on which a new International can be built strikes me as a bit self-aggrandizing. It demonstrates a certain inability on Trotsky’s part to understand Marx’s words in an 1875 letter to Bracke that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”
Trotsky’s polemics with Marceau Pivert, the chairman of the French section of the London Bureau, is also worth taking a look at. Pivert led the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (Workers’ and Peasants’ Socialist Party, or PSOP), a party I know almost nothing about. Pivert wrote an article titled The PSOP and Trotskyism in the June 9, 1939 issue of the PSOP journal. Just as was the case with Maxton, the article—an ostensible invitation to have a dialog—elicited Trotsky’s characteristically sharp reply. Since we are as always operating in the blind as far as the centrists’ words are concerned, we have to rely on Trotsky’s version:
Pivert is ready to collaborate with “Trotskyism,” provided only that the latter abandons all claims to “hegemony” and takes the pathway of “trustful collaboration with all elements that have courageously broken with social patriotism and national communism.”
Having thus proclaimed “hegemony” to be his private monopoly in the party, Pivert thereupon demands that the Trotskyites “abandon factional methods.” This demand, repeated several times, comes somewhat incongruously from the pen of a politician who constantly underscores the democratic nature of his organization. What is a faction?
You’ll note the subtle distinction made by Trotsky between abandoning “factional methods” and the right to form a faction: “Whoever prohibits factions thereby liquidates party democracy and takes the first step toward a totalitarian regime.”
Considering the fact that the Fourth International was the most split-prone tendency on the left, you’d think that Trotsky might have paid closer attention to the need to “abandon factional methods” rather than try to amalgamate Pivert with Stalin.
Centrism as an organized international movement came to a climax and disappeared not long after the POUM’s struggle in Spain. For people like myself, the POUM is a symbol of centrism’s folly as it combined courageous tactical initiatives against fascism with political support for the Popular Front government whose failure to enact thoroughgoing structural reforms fed the fascist beast seeking to topple it. It was not just a question of supporting the Popular Front. The POUM formed part of the government but without the kind of power wielded by the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie and its reformist partners.
The Trotskyist movement was very good in diagnosing the POUM’s problems, especially in Felix Morrow’s The Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain that can be read online. Morrow made the “orthodox” case against the POUM entering the government:
‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes,’ declared Marx. This was the great lesson learned from the Paris Commune: ‘not, as in the past, to transfer the bureaucratic and military machinery from one hand to the other, but to break it up; and that is the precondition of any real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic party comrades in Paris have attempted.’ What is to replace the shattered state machinery? On this, the fundamental question of revolution, the meagre experience of the Commune was fully developed by Lenin and Trotsky. Parliamentarianism was to be destroyed. In its place rise the workers’ committees in the factories, the peasants’ committees on the land, the soldiers’ committees in the army, centralized in local, regional and, finally, the national soviets. Thus, the new state, a workers’ state, is based on industrial representation, which automatically disfranchises the bourgeoisie, except as, after the consolidation of workers’ power, they individually enter productive labour and are permitted to participate in electing the soviets. Between the old bourgeois state and the new workers’ state lies a chasm over which the bourgeoisie cannot return to power except by overthrowing the workers’ state.
It was this fundamental tenet, the essence of the accumulated experience of a century of revolutionary struggle, which the POUM violated in entering the Generalidad [bourgeois government]. They received their ministry from the hands of President Companys. The new cabinet merely continued the work of the old, and like the old, could be dismissed and replaced by a more reactionary one. Behind the protective covering of the POUM-CNT-PSUC-Esquerra cabinet, the bourgeoisie would weather the revolutionary offensive, gather its shattered forces, and, with the aid of the reformists, at the ripe moment, return to full power. To this end, it was not even necessary for the bourgeoisie to participate in the cabinet. There had been ‘all-workers’ cabinets in Germany, Austria, England, which had thus enabled the bourgeoisie to weather critical situations, and then kick out the workers’ ministers.
As inured as I have become to the Trotskyist pointing out of sins of commission, I find myself wondering to what extent responsibility must be placed on the Fourth International for having failed to build an alternative to the POUM. Could it be possible that the “factional methods” referred to by Pivert constitute an effective roadblock to reaching the critical mass necessary to impact events on the ground? If so, then we can only conclude that the Trotskyist movement was effectively guilty of sins of omission that in the sphere of revolutionary politics might not condemn you to eternal damnation but eternal irrelevance. Damnation is surely worse, but as Marxists we must aspire to relevance and not be satisfied with the smug feeling that goes along with not being damned.